UK TV Of Christmas Past: 1986

The Christmas Day TV of Christmas 1986 proved to be a major success for the BBC...

Radio Times, Christmas 1986

Christmas 1986 will be long remembered for the incredible ratings achieved by BBC1 due to some very canny scheduling. But what else was going on at the time?

In the News: 1986 saw the wedding of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, in an age when Royal Weddings still meant something. Press barons Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell entered a newspaper circulation war. In a key year for the press, The Independent newspaper was launched and Eddie Shah launched the first full colour daily tabloid, Today.

In Sport: Maradona’s “hand of god” sank England’s chances in the Mexico World Cup. On the domestic front, Liverpool topped Division One and beat rivals Everton to the FA Cup. Oxford United won the League Cup. Frank Bruno was stateside in the big boxing clash of the year against Tim Witherspoon, while Edinburgh hosted the Commonwealth games. Motor racing driver Nigel Mansell was named BBC Sports Personality for 1986

Top of the charts: An unlikely Christmas hit for The Housemartins with the acapella Caravan of Love. Europe’s anthemic Final Countdown was at number three whilst at number two a clever claymation video ensured Reet Petite by the late Jackie Wilson was bound for the summit. 

Ad – content continues below

At the Box Office: Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee began a nine week stay at the top holding off the fantasy adventure Labyrinth. Back To The Future was the biggest film in the UK in 1986 followed by Rocky IV, Out Of Africa and Top Gun. Brit comedy Clockwise, which starred John Cleese at his manic best, came a creditable eighth.

On TV Christmas Day (Thursday December 25th 1986)

BBC18am Play School8,20am The Muppet Babies8.45am Roland Rat-The Series9.10am Papa Panov’s Special Day9.25am This Is the Day10am FILM: The Pure Hell of St.Trinians11.30am Christmas Morning With Noel1.25pm Every Second Counts2pm Top Of The Pops Christmas Party3pm The Queen3.10pm FILM: Annie, The Musical5.15pm News5.25pm Russ Abbott Christmas Show6pm Just Good Friends6.35pm EastEnders (Part One)7.05pm Only Fools And Horses: A Royal Flush8.20pm Miss Marple: Murder At The Vicarage10pm EastEnders (Part Two)10.30pm News10.40pm FILM: Educating Rita12.30am Weather

ITV6.15am TV AM9.25am Disney At Christmas10.00am Christmas Family Service11.00am He Man and She Ra Christmas Special11.40am FILM: Swiss Family Robinson2pm Ark Royal Rock Show3pm The Queen3.10pm FILM: Dumbo4.20pm Strike It Lucky!4.55pm News5pm Cinderella-pantomime6.30pm FILM: Never Say Never Again9pm A Duty Free Christmas10pm News10.10pm Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly

1986 saw Michael Grade’s sweeping changes come to fruition.This was the year of the EastEnders Christmas specials when an incredible 30 million viewers were glued to the soap opera as Den and Angie finally ended their turbulent marriage. The Radio Times even carried phone numbers to call “if you were affected by the issues raised”. Commendable, but not really what you want to see on the Christmas Day billings pages… 

At 11.30am Noel Edmonds presented a live show from the top of the Telecom tower. The show’s format had undergone some changes since its inception in 1984 as The Live, Live Breakfast Christmas Show, most notably a necessary name change. This year we were perhaps surprised to see Noel at all on Christmas Day given only weeks earlier the death of Michael Lush had ended his Late, Late Breakfast Show in the most tragic circumstances.

Ad – content continues below

Annie was the big afternoon kids film and the early evening featured specials from Russ Abbot (a recent recruit from ITV) and the last-ever Just Good Friends. In the middle of the EastEnders “sandwich” was the now traditional Only Fools and Horses. In a surprisingly subdued episode, played without canned laughter, Rodney fell for an uppercrust Duke’s daughter, only for Del to see an opportunity to join the country set. Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple investigated The Murder at The Vicarage. BBC1’s late film was a premiere for Educating Rita, Willy Russell’s witty campus comedy starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.

Meanwhile on ITV, cartoons were the order of the day with a He Man and She Ra Christmas Special and the classic Disney film Dumbo. Michael Barrymore was making his name with Strike It Lucky! and James Bond was an ITV Christmas tradition, this year in the form of a be-wigged Sean Connery making his return after a 12 year break in Never Say Never Again. The film was dismissed by the regular Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, who feared it might harm the chances of Roger Moore’s Octopussy. Duty Free presented an extended holiday episode in keeping with most sitcoms of the time. ITV also screened an Agatha Christie mystery Dead Man’s Folly, to pick up viewers from Miss Marple no doubt.

BBC2 celebrated the directorial work of Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s dad) in the alliteratively titled Minnelli Musical. Later, there was a live Christmas concert from Amsterdam, while the classic Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau film The Fortune Cookie was a part of a short season of Billy Wilder films. BBC2 celebrated the 85th birthday of composer Aaron Copeland and then screened Edith and Marcel, a film drama based on the obsessive and destructive relationship between 40s French icons, Edith Piaf and Marcel Cerdan.

A true Geek highlight followed the film as Robert Powell told the first of five “chilling tales for dark winter nights”. MR James’ The Mezzotint was tonight’s chiller. If the premise seems a bit Jackanory then it would come as no surprise the Jackanory production team were behind the series! Billy Wilder film Fedora was BBC2’s Christmas Day late film. Channel Four only four years old already had something of a tradition in the regular Christmas Day showing of Raymond Briggs animation The Snowman

And in the Radio Times…Oh dear! Okay, so I’m no fan of soap opera (least of all EastEnders) but for the Christmas issue of the (then) best-selling magazine in Britain this is, quite frankly, an awful cover. This just feels calculated at worst and lazy at best. To be fair, EastEnders was huge at the time so it would certainly generate sales yet when everyone who wanted a BBC Christmas listings guide had to buy RadioTimes there is little reason the cover should be anything other than purely decorative. This was the only year I’ve felt embarrassed buying the magazine.

On the positive side it was followed by two beautifully illustrated covers for Christmas 1987 and 1988. Tellingly perhaps, the 1988 issue is officially the biggest magazine sale ever in this country. Some 11.2 million people purchased the magazine that year. As for this one? Just over ten million sales…

Ad – content continues below

CHRISTMAS GEEK RATING: Next time we pitch up in 1994…

See also: our look back at Christmas 1969, and Christmas 1977.